The Problem With The Famously Godawful Executive Monkey Study

Illustration for article titled The Problem With The Famously Godawful Executive Monkey Study

In 1958, a study done on monkeys supposedly showed the terrible psychological burden that we put on people with power. It was not a pleasant study, and had wildly inaccurate results. And it was basically just monkey torture.


In 1958 Joseph Brady, a psychologist, decided to put monkeys in little restraint devices and shock them. Understandably, the monkeys were not thrilled by this. As luck would have it, some of them were given an out. A tone preceded the shocks, and when these special monkeys heard the tone, they pressed a lever, and skipped the shock. The other monkeys heard the tone and were shocked regardless of what they did.

All of the monkeys were shocked every 20 seconds for six hours at a time. It didn't take long for them to start to die. The first to die, of massive ulcers, were the monkeys with control over being shocked. Brady noted that these monkey's stomachs seemed to have had "maximum acid secretion during rest periods." He dubbed the lever-pushers the "executive" monkeys, and guessed that being in control of the situation made them crack under the weight of responsibility. He also noted that the monkeys without control were relatively healthy.

The Executive Monkey Experiment inspired a wave of animals being promoted to executive status via massive numbers of electric shocks. Some were given no warning tone, and shocked at random. Some were given positive feedback when they managed to avoid shocks. Some were given easier tasks. Few showed the strong negative responses to control over their situation that Brady's executive monkeys had.

There is a reason for Brady's odd results. The monkeys who got executive positions did not get them randomly. They were made executives because of their ability to quickly learn that pressing the lever stops the shock. Although there's no way to be sure, it's quite possible that these monkeys figured out the connection quickly because they were deeply frightened by the shock and desperately trying to keep from getting shocked again. The monkeys who became executives, and died due to stress, very well might have been the ones that were the most stressed in the first place.

[Via Ulcers in "Executive" Monkeys, Effects of Coping Behavior With and Without a Feedback Signal on Stress Pathology in Rats, The Myth of Executive Stress]


Some of the executive monkeys, however, went on to lead long and productive lives. In fact, I have a meeting with one in about ten minutes.